Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Charlie Chaplin and the Birth of "The Little Tramp"

The first truly iconic figure of moving pictures was born  just at the dawn of 1914.  Charlie Chaplin, a Cockney music hall performer, was in North America touring with a group of Fred Karno's troupe of comics and acrobats.  (The group also included a young man named Stanley Jefferson.  He would be known to the world as well in a few years as the Stan Laurel of Laurel and Hardy fame.) 

Seeing Chaplin performing an act playing a middle-aged gentleman drunk in the Karno show, the movie producer Mack Sennett hired Chaplin at 150 dollars a week in 1913.  The head of Keystone Studios was not aware his new actor  was as young (25) as he was. The idea was for Chaplin to take the place of Ford Sterling,  the on-screen leader of his Keystone Cops, a major act in Sennett's stock company. He produced one and two reel slapstick comedies featuring the "Cops" and a pretty female actress and director named Mabel Normand -- at his studios in Los Angeles. 

 He also wasn't apparently aware how versatile Charlie was, or how just doing knockabout humor was not going to keep his new hireling very happy for long.  

Since Sennett couldn't use him as a middle-aged police sargent, so the story goes, the young man needed a different character to justify his salary--and he had to be funny.  It didn't take Chaplin long to create one--according to another Sennett actor, Chaplin scoured the wardrobe while he and two other actors were playing cards. One of them, a rotund future star named Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle loaned him a pair of pants much too big for the smaller man. He also put on a morning coat, an ill-fitting vest that was a too small,  and a battered derby and equally battered shoes. 

 The young Englishman fiddled with some costume hair and  spirit gum until he got an approximation of a mustache to make him look a little older and slightly pompous.  The result of this motley gear, and Chaplin's own affinity for panto-mine and razor-sharp observances of human behavior. He cavorted about on the hotel set of a Mabel Normand film at the studio and drew big laughs from all concerned. Sennett was impressed. How could he not be. He had a star on his hands--a star that would soon leave him for greater creative control than his blustery and crude boss could ever have made full use.      


Chaplin, who had spent part of his youth in a south London workhouse, had been in America only a few months and already had created for himself a character that would be world famous by the end of 1914.  

Here is Chaplin as the Tramp in his first "screen test", a brief "half reel" film with only two other actors.  The crew took advantage of a weekend kids "soapbox derby" racing event to test out "the tramp", or "the little fellow" as Chaplin later called him.

It's a cloudy January day in the a small Los Angeles suburb called Venice.  The crowd  here is seeing a oddly-dressed  man who keeps trying  to get in the view of a movie camera, while another crew films the growing anger between crew and pushy bystander. They couldn't have known, even if they figured out the "set-up" for this gag comedy,  that they were witnessing cultural history. 




  1. A lot of people adore Charlie Chaplin. My daughter and grandchildren do. Can you imagine 4 little 3,4 and 5 year olds spellbound watching Charlie Chaplin silent films?
    They were, and even though they are older now, they still love watching those old silent films.

  2. we all loved him and still watch them all

  3. So am I understanding correctly that the two cameramen were really trying to film the race and Chaplin essentially "punk'd" them? That's pretty awesome!

  4. It is amazing, Jacquie, how universal and timeless those comedies he did can be--children I think understand him so well because he, like them, so enjoyed the gifts of imagination and play most of us set aside as adults.

  5. An amazing body of work, Heidi. I was watching some of his films like "The Idle Class" and "Sunnyside" recently and was struck by how graceful and insightful his work still is. Chaplin truly had a great gift.

  6. Sorry, Shedrick, I could have worded my blog better there.

    I think both crews were in on the gag--but the idea was to "punk" the spectators at the event into thinking Charlie was just a spectator getting in the way of the kids' races. There had to be a lot of improvisation in that idea--and it does recall the kind of of "Punk'd" programming we have today.

    Funny how there are no really "new" ideas in entertainment.